Is That The Breast You Can Do?
Last week was a tough one. The wheels of the crazy carriage were well and truly spinning at never before seen speeds _ work was at an intensity level where all sorts of nuclear buttons were being pushed, the house and its menacing trifecta of clutter, laundry and kid crumbs was threatening to swallow us whole, and the parenting bit was like losing on all fronts. Also I chose this very week to go on a bit of a carb-free run. In the world of superlatively bad choices that one got all the medals.
Suffice to say that when Friday night came, the mini diet got a kick in the proverbial backside and wine was guzzled as the antidote to a poisonous 7 days. As dad put the kid to bed I sat down and flicked through the headlines.
Maybe it was the wine, maybe the extreme tiredness, but I was soon in tears, gripped by a seriously core shaking story. It was about a mother whose son starved to death due to her insufficient milk supply and the failure of the breastfeeding promoting team surrounding her to recognize she had a problem feeding her newborn.
Landon Johnson, a perfectly healthy baby boy, was latched onto his mother’s breast pretty much continuously from birth and yet he cried inconsolably. His mother Jillian, a first time mother, was surrounded by medical professionals and lactation consultants, all insisting that he was latching on well and that she should just to keep at it. The baby, though, was quickly becoming severely dehydrated and soon suffered a heart attack that would prove fatal in its consequences. Landon died just a few days after birth.
Just one bottle of formula could have saved him.
I could hardly catch a breath and started having flashbacks to my own experience. My son was born via emergency c-section after an unbearable two day induction that never really progressed resulting in severe fetal distress. When he was born I was woozy with drugs and, like many new mums, soon left to care for him alone in a ward full of wailing babies and ailing mothers. I had him on the breast at the recommended intervals and some more but he never seemed comfortable with it. In my confused state and with blood pressure too low to even be allowed to shower, I remember feeling something wasn’t quite right but being told he should start to poo soon, a black tar-like poo, and have a wet nappy. That’s how I would know things were ok. And yet I felt uneasy, because we were nearly two days into his birth and nothing. No poo, no wet nappy. And no one seemed fazed.
He didn’t really cry but he was constantly sucking like mad and eating his hands. That’s normal, they said. He was just a quiet baby and I was lucky, they said. But was it? Was I?
I had read the books, taken the lactation classes and yet I now felt as unprepared as if I had just gotten off the bus at the motherhood stop. I was riddled with doubts, anxiety and no amount of the NCT advice I remembered on baby positioning _upside down, sideways, as nature intended blah blah _ could tell me if I was doing things right and if everything was indeed ok.
This is probably true of every new mother _ I mean hands up anyone who ever had a grip on small humans in the first year, let alone days _ but I am a panicker by nature, so come the second day and still no wet/dirty nappies, I asked for a bottle.
My request was met with a considerable amount of resistance. I needed to persevere, he would eventually poo and it was normal. I just needed to wait. A bottle would confuse him and he would have trouble latching again. I nodded politely and asked for the bottle again. I got the bottle and so did my son who guzzled it with aplomb. Hours later he pooed and the next day we were discharged.
My milk came up the night we got home and I didn’t think about the hospital again. I was too busy feeling overwhelmed and crying 15 out of 24 hours everytime someone made toast or the sun came up, to remember the bottle.
Throughout the 8 months that I breastfed, though, I struggled with proper attachment, two mastitis, bleeding, cracked nipples that had me feeding through tears and all sorts of other ailments considered normal in the life cycle of breastfeeding. I visited lactation groups seeking advice for what I thought were big issues but came away floored by the real, often unspoken struggles of so many mothers who should simply not have been told to persevere with breastfeeding. Mothers with hollow eyes, mothers nodding with faint smiles secretly ridden with guilt over not being able to, not wanting, not liking, not wishing to breastfeed but not daring to speak out for fear of judgement which almost always was delivered in veiled in glances and stares. Mothers whose very commitment to their children was being questioned with mildly condescending sentences such as “It really is best for them, you know,” overheard as they attempted to nurse screaming red infants who just wanted a meal and a break. Just like them.
No one was forcing these women to breastfeed but such is the nature of pressure. It gets applied in gentle, imperceptible pushes that gradually erode your own judgment, dull your instincts and replace them with wholesome mantras, preying on every new mother’s endless determination to do the very best for her children.
Instead of empowering them to make choices that worked for them, like formula, which is technically advanced nutrition and not the poison that will condemn your tots to a lifetime of obesity and disease, they were being made to feel inadequate, like they couldn’t even do what nature had so very holistically prepared them to do. People can tell you you failed professionally, that you’re shit with numbers, that you’re a terrible human being, but nothing feels quite as soul destroying as the implication that you have failed as a mother because you can’t breastfeed or principally, because you are not willing to persist, sacrifice and martyr yourself, or in the case of Jillian Johnson condemn her own son, in the pursuit of this misconstrued wet dream.
I never realised how important that bottle in the hospital ward was for me. Not the actual bottle _ I don’t believe my son was starving, although I truly believe he was hungry _ but the action of asking for it. That, I realise now, was the real step. That is the step that every mother should feel free to take, at any stage of her child’s feeding journey. Being a parent does not make you the owner of truth and the medical profession does know a thing or two about health. But how you feed your child is your business. This is not a choice between natural goodness and junk food. Formula is good enough if it feeds a hungry child. There is no holiness in breastfeeding, as nutritionally balanced as it is, just as there is no moral superiority in pushing a baby our of your vagina as opposed to having it cut out of you. The baby is born, that’s your first battle won. The baby is fed, that’s your ultimate victory.
To read Jillian’s story go to https://fedisbest.org/
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